I wrote this story in the 1990s, after the Washington County Republicans, after so many years literally crying in the wilderness, managed to gain dominance in on the Washington County Quorum Court. Though I disagreed with their stances on just about everything, I felt it was important to write about how they had gone about how they had gone about achieving this.
As an aside, this took place during those wonderful times when the Hilton ballroom was full of candidates, theie supporters, and the media on election night. I always enjoyed that. I’m sorry - election night watches for individual candidates just pale in comparison to the excitement that one found in the Hilton on those occasions.
That the Republican majority on the QC brought with it much controversy pretty much goes without saying. Just several years later they voted to strip gay and lesbian county employees of their job protections - which they had enjoyed for almost a decade.
The World Turned Upside Down
Property Rights, Talk Radio Benefit Local Republicans
Written by Richard S. Drake
Election Night, 1996: Amid television cameras, sweat, alcohol, tears, smiles, gaudy American flag ties, cigarette smoke, and the constant ringing of cellular telephones, a mass of people once again gathered in a ballroom at Fayetteville's Hilton Hotel to watch election results being announced. For many people, 1996 will mark the year that Washington County threw off the onus of being a one-party county.
For the first time, Republicans hold a sizable number of seats on .the Washington County Quorum Court, a victory which Take Back Arkansas member Mary Denham claims is due largely to the power of talk radio.
While true that many of the winning candidates had appeared frequently on KFAY (an AM radio station which has been seen as championing some of the causes which conservative voters have made their own) the victories can also be also be attributed to a new strategy used by the Washington County Republican Party this year.
Ralph Hudson, Chairman of the Washington County Republican Party since 1994 (and winner of a seat on the Quorum Court) has largely been responsible for much of the success enjoyed by the party this year. In an interview conducted prior to the election, Hudson talked frankly about why he believed the Republicans would do well on election day.
In years past, Republican would run someone (whether qualified or not) for a seat whenever one came open, leading many to make jokes about those who, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, would salivate at the thought of an election. Candidates ran automatically, often with the forlorn knowledge that they were running doomed, ineffective campaigns.
This year, the Republican party has chosen a different approach. Using a formula known as Optimum Republican Voting Strength (based on past election results) the county committee targeted specific political seats. Some races they passed on (such as Quorum Court member Lyell Thompson’s) because it was felt that the Democrats in those seats might never be displaced.
Property Rights Key to this Election
Several issues have propelled the Republicans this year. One of the strongest issues for rural areas has been the property rights issue. In fact, it is one of the key items in the “Pledge to the Voters of Washington County,” a document that all party county candidates signed.
This past summer the public became aware of just how deep the feelings are over this one issue when the Washington County Quorum Court was witness to an angry confrontation over the so-called “sign ordinance,” when environmentalists came up against rural property rights advocates.
The changes in the Republican party have created a sort of minor schism within party ranks. Some of the older members were described by one source as resembling “punch drunk fighters,” who were just going through the motions. Hudson says that there “was no cohesion in the old party structure,” and there was a lot of infighting.
Trying to get party members away from a losing mentality, Hudson says that he began using a “motivational” style when heading meetings. He says that he put out a lot of positive
feedback, trying to build up their self-image as much as possible.
Hudson says that the general conservative message the party is putting out is what is appealing to voters, much of which is reflected in the “pledge.” The pledge puts emphasis on fiscal responsibility, less government regulation, less taxation, and a strong emphasis on personal property rights.
The catalyst for including the property rights pledge (besides “grassroots” efforts across the country) was the battle over the billboard sign ordinance last summer. Hudson say that land ownership issues are very important to rural residents. Often, after all, a person's land is all they have and those in the country are “offended” at the thought of those they consider outsiders telling them what they can do with their land.
If a similar battle is played out in 1997, progressives will have to be more sensitive to the feelings of those who actually live in the country.
GOP Net Surfers
The pledge itself came about as a result of one of the local party members surfing the Internet and discovering a similar attempt by a Republican county group in Georgia. Obviously seen as an attempt to ride the coat-tails of the much debated “Contract with America,” which the Republicans in Congress pushed through after their 1994 victories, the pledge is an attempt to make sure that they have something solid to connect with when thinking of local Republicans.
Republican James McDonald, losing his second race against County Judge Charles Johnson, says the pledge is not so much a contract as a “statement of intentions.” He says it means that they will try to accomplish what is on the pledge.
Ultimately, much of the Contract with America crashed, because the Republicans who authored it were not only arrogant, but insensitive to the feelings of the average voter. It remains to be seen whether the pledge will meet the same fate.
Ralph Hudson also says that moral issues are important to voters, an attitude which is
surely echoed by the local branch of the Christian Coalition, which sent out its own questionnaire to local candidates. Though not dealing with any issues which the candidates would actually have to deal with, it dealt largely with personal values.
There is a danger that this particular approach might lead to candidates who are heavy on the moral side of the equation, but are not qualified for the seat they are seeking. Ralph Hudson says that this is something the local Republicans are going to guard against
Along with targeting specific seats, the Washington County Republican party has attempted to reach the unabashedly conservative voter, a strategy which seemed to be paying off on election night.
Hudson also says that “Democrats have left behind the conservative Democrats who live in the South,” with a national agenda that is perceived as being liberal. This has the effect, Hudson believes, of helping local races. He says that they are all intertwined. In fact, Bill Pritchard, who faced off against Sue Madison for a seat in the state legislature, made the campaign pledge that he would represent all “conservative” voters, be they Republican or Democrat. There was no mention of whether he was aware that he would also be the representative of voters who were not conservative.
As Chairman of the Washington County Republican Party, Hudson has had to shepherd along sixteen separate races, including his own Justice of the Peace campaign.
What does the future hold in store with a county government dominated by Republican JPs? In addition to efforts to “streamline county government,” Hudson says that, even though Republican Dean Melton failed in his attempt at the Sheriff's office, voters can “expect an accountability that is not there now,” as far as jail operations are concerned.
James McDonald says that he feels that the average citizen will have more input now than previously. He says that due to new people coming in (not only to the Republican Party but to Northwest Arkansas itself) that the party is going to be even stronger in the future.
Election night, when it appeared that GOP officeholders had won a majority of Quorum Court seats, Hudson indicated that there would no doubt be an immediate repeal of the sign ordinance which prompted so much debate last summer. The resulting firestorm may well be an indication of how the new Washington County Quorum Court deals with issues and public debate they are uncomfortable with.
Ozark Gazette - November 11, 1996